Did you know the Might and Magic franchise is over 20 years old? My introduction to the series came back in the late 80s, when a friend of mine bought me Might and Magic II for the PC. I played that game to death, though I don’t believe I ever finished it. The role-playing series would carry on for seven more installments, nine in total, not to mention several spin-offs, before 3DO closed its doors. Ubisoft acquired the Might and Magic brand in 2003 and have since concluded the Heroes of Might and Magic turn-based strategy spin-off, as well as created an entirely new title, Dark Messiah of Might and Magic, an action-role playing game from developer Arkane Studios. Dark Messiah of Might and Magic Elements is the Xbox 360 port of the initial PC game and now that our history lesson is complete, let’s see if it plays any better than its PC counterpart.
The story of Dark Messiah of Might and Magic is pretty standard fantasy fare. A thousand years ago, a powerful wizard imprisoned all the Demons of the world in a limbo of eternal fire, but his disciple prophesied that one day a Demon Child would come along and threaten to shatter the Demons’ prison with a relic known as the Skull of Shadows. You play as Sareth, an apprentice sent on a quest to retrieve said artifact, and while there are a couple of good/evil decisions to be made in the game, resulting one of four possible endings, it’s the storytelling that ultimately lets the plot down. The story is told through cutscenes, in-game dialogue and recaps during level loading times. There are a ton of loading screens throughout the eleven chapters of the game and that in of itself doesn’t help the flow of the story, but it also doesn’t let you finish reading the scrolling text before the next portion of the level loads up. The least they could have done was to have the text scroll onto the screen and then ask you to push a button when you’re ready to continue.
Dark Messiah of Might and Magic is billed as an action role-playing game, but I beg to differ because character customization has been pretty well been neutered for the console. You start the game by choosing from four character classes: Warrior, Archer, Mage and Assassin. When you go up a level, however, you don’t get to customize or specialize your character. Instead, you’re automatically assigned a new skill, ability or spell. Character progression is entirely linear and while there are differences between each class in terms of what weapons and armor they can use, as well as combat strategies to employ, if you and I were to both play through the game as Assassins, for example, we would have essentially identical experiences. To me, that doesn’t define a role-playing game. The lack of character customization in Dark Messiah of Might and Magic makes it feel more like an action adventure than an action role-playing game.
Combat in Dark Messiah of Might and Magic is not unlike that of Oblivion. The right trigger is used to attack while the left trigger is used to defend. You can map different weapons and spells to the directional pad (double-tiered when holding down the right bumper) for quick access. The game was built using the Source engine and Havok physics engine so as you might be able to guess, interactive environments play a potential role in combat. You can pick up crates and barrels, and toss them at enemies. You can kick out support beams and cut support ropes in an attempt to crush enemies with collapsible structures. You can kick enemies off ledges and into spike walls, and you can even douse an enemy with a jar of oil and then light them aflame (and then watch as he runs frantically into his buddies, setting them ablaze too). There are countless ways to eliminate enemies without unsheathing your weapon and they are all wonderfully satisfying, that is until you’ve kicked your hundredth goblin into one of the many spike walls.
Combat aside, there’s not an awful lot of variety in the game. Although there are more than 35 weapons, each character class can only use between 8 to 10 of them, and for the most part they’re variations on the same theme; weapons with chilling effects, weapons with fiery effects, sacred weapons that are effective against the undead, etc. The selection of armor, shields and rings is also rather sparse. You’ll end up finding the same items several times during your quest. I very much appreciated the ability to forge new swords along the way though considering the potential of this idea, I don’t think its use was fully realized here. The monster types are also none too varied. Instead of having just one type of Goblin, why not have several ranks of Goblin, like a Shaman or a Chief, that way at least you’re not fighting the same Goblin type over and over. There are some nice boss battles along the way though, including numerous encounters with a Cyclops, a Giant Spider and even a few Dragons.
Dark Messiah of Might and Magic is a very dark game. So many of its levels take place in sewers, caves and tombs that it’s difficult to make out any kind of detail in the textures and enemy models. It’s certainly an ideal environment for Assassins to practice their craft though. The game also feels unpolished, with occasional lapses in frame rate and game-stopping glitches. On one occasion I was fighting a guard on a boat, went for a power strike and glitched right through the wall and into the sea. And on a couple of occasions I glitched into an object, got stuck and had to reload my last savegame. Even the ambient sounds cut in and out at times.
The story mode clocks in at about 12 hours and if the mood strikes you, Dark Messiah of Might and Magic offers a decent suite of multiplayer modes. Deathmatch and Team Deathmatch are present as is Blitz, in which teams fight to capture spawn points and ultimately the enemy’s control point, and Crusade, in which teams battle to complete objectives across a series of maps. Once again there are four character classes to choose from, though the Assassin is swapped out for the Priestess in multiplayer. You can equip your online avatar with four skills from a selection of nine, along with their assigned Heroic skill, and its key to make use of each class of character on your team. Unfortunately the frame rate issues that plague the single player story also affect online play, and there just aren’t many people playing this game online.
When the PC version of Dark Messiah of Might and Magic was released late in 2006, it had issues with both single- and multiplayer. Here we are a little over a year later, the Xbox 360 version doesn’t fare much better. The combat system is still impressive but frame rate issues and other glitches indicate a general lack of polish, and the neutered character customization kills any semblance of role-playing in the game. Multiplayer is a bit of a wash as well with so few playing online. In the end, Dark Messiah of Might and Magic Elements could and should have been more than the barely passable action adventure that it turned out to be.